Taking off: Senior Melissa Leonhardt to attend the United States Air Force Academy

Alyssa Matesic, Staff Writer

     The letter arrived on the last day of fall exams. Her grandpa, who was enlisted himself when he first came to America from Germany, and her dad were ecstatic. Her mom wasn’t physically there to share the moment, but she had helped inspire it all.

     On that day, senior Melissa Leonhardt’s future was set. She was officially accepted into the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

     In middle school, Leonhardt’s older brother talked about applying to the academy, but Leonhardt didn’t think it was a good fit for her own future – she was afraid of dying. Currently, her brother is a sophomore at the academy. It was his enrollment that changed Leonhardt’s mind about the school and caused her to reconsider it as a college option in the beginning of her junior year.

     “When I went to visit my brother, I fell in love with the school and the whole concept of it,” Leonhardt said. “I like that I get to serve my country and attend school and that I have the opportunity to do something with my life.”

     When they were younger, the Leonhardts lost their mom. Leonhardt said that going through that tragedy, though, has given her a new mindset that she will carry with her through the academy and the Air Force.

     “That’s one of my fears, like, losing somebody close to me again,” Leonhardt said. “But I feel like that’s helped me overcome some things also. It put a new perspective on my life – to not take things for granted.”

     Leonhardt will either specialize in astronomical or nuclear engineering for her first four years at the academy. After that, she will have the choice of either attending graduate school or going directly into her mandatory four to five years of active Air Force service. Her entire tuition – totaling at approximately $414,000 – is paid by the academy.

     “I’ve always really loved science, so I thought, ‘Why go to a normal college and do science when I can go to a military college and do something to help my country?’” Leonhardt said.

     Leonhardt begins basic training, which focuses on preparing both the mind and body for the job, a week after school ends. Leonhardt’s brother may help instruct the training. Leonhardt said she feels that attending the academy alongside her brother will bring them closer together as family.

     “I haven’t decided if he’s going to make it harder for me or easier,” Leonhardt said. “He technically isn’t supposed to be my instructor, but he’ll still be able to see me on Sunday, which is your day off. So I’ll get to see him and get the moral support I need.”

     The ratio of male to female students at the academy is approximately four to one. Leonhardt said that the imbalance doesn’t frighten her, though, as she is used to being in the minority. Currently, she is on the girls swim team, but she often trains with the boys.

     “I’m just used to being with the guys, so it doesn’t really affect me,” Leonhardt said. “Most of my friends are guys anyway, so I’m kind of used to that.”

     Leonhardt will continue to swim at the academy, and has already met her future swim coach and teammates. She said that after meeting the girls she is confident that she can find good friends among them.

     “A lot of girls are catty, but these girls are really mature about everything,” Leonhardt said. “It really made me feel like I can actually enjoy being on this team.”

     Leonhardt said she has some fears about possibly being involved in warfare, but none strong enough to suppress her desire to become a part of the armed forces. She believes that the lessons she will learn at the academy and the people she will meet will be worth the risk.

     “I hope to grow as a person,” Leonhardt said. “I hope to be a little bit more disciplined and more of a team player with this because it’s really a group effort through the whole academy.”